Spider-Man 3, A Decade Later

Above: Tobey Maguire dancing as the Sam Raimi Spider-Man canon burns around him.

Spoiler alert! If anyone even cares.

Last Thursday I watched the 2007 film Spider-Man 3 (for the first and probably last time). While I watched and enjoyed the first two films in Sam Raimi's trilogy as a boy, I didn't see the third. Even though I was keen to do so, my parents never showed it to me, and they told me that it was rubbish anyway. I have heard this from others over the years, but I nonetheless wanted to see for myself. So, ten years after its release, I have finally done so. And now I know what they mean.

It could have been a decent film. Spider-Man becoming evil, the return of the Green Goblin (which is hyped throughout Spider-Man 2; this is a large part of what made me so eager to watch the third film as a boy) and his eventual redemption, the emotion-filled struggle between Harry Osborn (the new Green Goblin) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (as both Harry & Peter as well as their respective alter egos), Spider-Man emotionally battling the man who killed his Uncle Ben (this could explore the ethics of revenge, punishment, execution, and taking the law into one's own hands), Spider-Man fighting more than one enemy (although this film may have been a little overcrowded), and Spider-Man fighting alongside a fellow superhero (in this case, the redeemed Green Goblin) were all great ideas for a third instalment in the trilogy. But the creators of Spider-Man 3 didn't carry out any of them very well at all.

The much-hyped return of the Green Goblin (in the form of Harry Osborn, the last Goblin's son) was a bit of a damp squib. Towards the beginning of the film he appears out of the blue, is hastily defeated by a nasty fall which clichédly gives him temporary amnesia (thus removing him from the narrative for a bit to make way for the other villains, the Sandman and Venom). When Harry does remember again later in the film, he somehow forces Mary Jane Watson to break up with Peter Parker after smashing his way into her room and throttling her. Why she obeys him, or doesn't let Peter know that he's become the new Goblin (she is unaware that he already knows), I do not know. Yes, she may have been threatened by him, but she doesn't even attempt to hint to Peter that she is being coerced or that his life is in danger. And she continues to be separated from Peter, and never bothers to tell him the truth, long after Harry has been wounded by a bomb (and, we must assume, incapacitated in hospital before we see him again at the end of the film with a partially healed burnt face) and her life is presumably no longer in danger.* In any case, the fact that Harry chooses this peculiar method of hurting Spider-Man (to have his heart broken) makes him still seem more like a relatively harmless (if a little sociopathic) ordinary person (just a kid with a grudge, playing around with his Dad's old weaponry) than the menacing, murderous supervillain he is supposed to have transformed into by this point (apart from his assault on Mary Jane and his attempts to kill Peter, we never see him committing any crimes. His gadgets aside, there's nothing "super" about his villainy).

Partly because of this, much of Spider-Man 3 feels like a cheesy romcom about Peter Parker rather than a superhero film about the amazing Spider-Man. This is also contributed to by the terrible representation of "evil Spider-Man", which could have been depicted as a terrifying concept (someone as powerful as Spider-Man fighting for evil instead of good; the sheer despair at the only person who could ever save you from evil becoming evil itself, and all the hopelessness, powerlessness, vulnerability and fear that would bring), but is instead represented as an annoying overconfident emo version of Peter Parker (he wears eye shadow, gets an emo hairstyle and dresses in all black!). The previous Spider-Man films were quite funny and light-hearted, but at the right times, and not in sickly quantities. Spider-Man 3 could have been an epic exploring the concepts I listed earlier, but for some reason it chooses to explore them not at the level of superhero epic (surely what the cinemagoers paid for), but at the level of cheesy romcom, utterly taking the power out of them. I want to see a heartrending battle between Spider-Man and his former friend the Green Goblin, not a ridiculous love triangle between stroppy twentysomethings. I want to see a scarily wicked Spider-Man, not a selfish emo kid who thinks he's cooler than he is.

Admittedly, Spider-Man 3 does reach for the stars, even if it rarely attains them. It does attempt to explore the relationship between Spider-Man and the man who killed his uncle, and subsequently the topic of revenge. I didn't detect the same level of emotion in their confrontations as I would have liked to see, however (the same level of emotion was also lacking in the confrontations between Spider-Man and Harry Osborn. Perhaps this is a flaw of trying to fit three villains into the same picture - not enough room to very deeply explore these things).

But I have other criticisms of Sam Raimi's third Spidey flick. Spider-Man's flamboyant attendance of a weird pagan festival in his honour makes him seem cocky and dislikeable (this is probably intentional, but even so, it's annoying and, I felt, unrealistic; it is not the sort of thing the adult, professional, humble Peter Parker/Spider-Man originally established throughout the first film would do, in the same way that he would never reveal his identity, take revenge, or even go out with the love of his life (for her safety). Spider-Man's personality is also eroded, and reverted to a more childish state, by his discovery of the man who really killed his uncle, and by the Venom Symbiote which attaches itself to him. These are both understandable and tests of Spider-Man's character, but they happen after he behaves like a cocky spoilt brat at this pagan celebration, where he kisses another woman, with him and Mary Jane's signature upside-down kiss, in front of MJ herself). I suppose it's not unreasonable for the film to explore Spider-Man being toxified by fame & adoration, but apart from this scene, in which it is used to drive a division between Peter and Mary Jane, it isn't really explored (what toxifies him later in the film is, as already stated, the Venom Symbiote and a lust for revenge). Farewell, then, to five years of character development.

Neither is it unreasonable for relationship issues between Peter and MJ to be depicted (they happen with all couples), but it was irritating for me to witness the brilliant romance built in the first two films (highlights include the tragic ending of the first, and the great relief felt when Peter's identity is finally revealed to Mary Jane near the end of the second) bulldozed by the bizarre nonsensical romantic comedy, utterly unworthy of its predecessors, of the third. Farewell, then, to five years of romance.

I realise the Spider-Man universe is naturally fantastical, but I wonder if it was a good idea to use some of Spider-Man's relatively more ridiculous villains for this film: the Sandman (a man made of sand) and Venom (an alien, basically), who are monsters unlike anything we saw before in the Raimi trilogy. Particularly, the suspension of disbelief is difficult to maintain when the film asks you to accept that all these unbelievable freaks coincidentally end up in New York City at the same time (isn't it an almighty coincidence that the asteroid containing the Venom Symbiote, out of all the places it could have landed on the entire Earth, lands right next to Spider-Man?). The supervillains of the previous films were fundamentally human, albeit with futuristic technology.

Speaking of Venom, far from being the hideous, bloodcurdling monster he could have been presented to be, this antagonist appears (in his familiar form) briefly and comically (I don't think he even gets a chance to be named).

Spider-Man 3 has the strange pacing of a film without a clear direction. Watching it is akin to watching a lab rat in a maze; it stupidly & haphazardly stumbles about down different routes and paths until it eventually comes across the exit. Overall, however, my primary quarrel with the picture is that it killed the Sam Raimi Spider-Man canon. Combining the epic with the light-hearted, with strong moral themes, questions, and messages, and much emotion, Raimi's first two Spider-Man films are golden. They set the foundations for the modern superhero blockbuster, and no Spider-Man film released since can compete.

After Spider-Man 3, a Spider-Man 4 was going to be released, but Raimi left the project, and Sony (which was behind Raimi's trilogy) decided to start from scratch, creating a new Spider-Man cinematic canon beginning with the 2012 film The Amazing Spider-Man (with Spider-Man now played by Andrew Garfield rather than Raimi's Tobey Maguire). I watched The Amazing Spider-Man when I was 14 years old. I don't remember being terribly impressed; it didn't bring anything new to the table, and I wasn't interested in the CGI reptilian antagonist. I also thought it was ridiculous at the time to have a reboot only five years after the previous Spidey film (but you know Hollywood loves its reboots these days...). I didn't bother viewing its sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I saw its advertisements, and I thought they looked more like adverts for a CGI-infested computer game than for a Hollywood motion picture.

If I thought that The Amazing Spider-Man was ridiculous for being released only five years after the previous Spider-Man film series ended, then I must have loved it when Spider-Man was rebooted yet again, this time for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Only two years after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was released, Spidey, now played by Tom Holland, made a brief appearance in Captain America: Civil War (2016). I haven't seen this film either. I did, however, see the Webspinner's most recent MCU flick: Spider-Man: Homecoming, which I watched this year on one of my first dates with my now girlfriend. I enjoyed this film. It doesn't try to be another Sony Spider-Man picture; it isn't "more of the same". Instead, it's fresh - it goes in its own direction, pursuing a much more light-hearted child-friendly comedic tone (the first two Raimi films are light-hearted too (though not as light), and, although I can't really remember, I think that the Amazing Spider-Man dilogy is slightly darker). It's an enjoyable, fun film.

However, having recently watched the first two Raimi films for the first time since boyhood, I realise that, in trying to avoid the darkness of earlier Spider-Man films, Homecoming avoids the most intriguing and emotional aspect of the Spider-Man myth - the murder of Uncle Ben, inadvertently caused by Peter Parker seeking revenge (powerfully explored in the Raimi canon). I can't remember if Uncle Ben is even mentioned by name in Homecoming. I don't even think his iconic words "with great power comes great responsibility" are uttered. But, as I said, Homecoming purposefully tries to avoid being like previous Spider-Man films (I've read that this Spider-Man canon will explore Peter Parker's balance between his vigilante alter ego and his life as a high schooler more than previous Spidey flicks).

The problem with these reboots, of course, is that they make everything which came before them, no matter how good, disappear into irrelevance and nullity. Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) were praiseworthy pictures; it sometimes seems illogical to me, as if they are wasted, by new Spider-Man films not having them in their backstory. You cannot create a mythology by frequently replacing its roots. And that is what series can be if they continue for long enough - worthy of the description "mythology" (the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built itself a complex legendarium since Iron Man was released nine years ago. The phrase "Star Trek", which once referred solely to a 1960s TV show of the same name, is now used to indicate a whole multiverse of fiction, containing other television programmes, films, comics, videogames, and so on. Something similar can be said of Doctor Who, and superhero comics themselves (now so intricate & mythological they surely need professors, or at least only the most obsessive nerds, to decipher them)).

If Spider-Man 3 had not been so ill-made, perhaps Spider-Man 4 could have been completed, and perhaps the same canon could have been the backstory of many future Spider-Man films. One film could have added to another and a Spider-Man mythology could have been created. But Spider-Man 3 went wrong, Spider-Man 4 was cancelled, and ever since Spider-Man in film has been discarding his past and starting from scratch, leaving Sam Raimi's 2002 and 2004 blockbusters to be forgotten - left behind - in the distant past of the Noughties. I just think it's a shame that they had to go to waste like that. Ah well. I, at least, remember and enjoy them still.

*This is one of many things in the film which doesn't make sense. Another example is this scene. How does Venom know so much about the Sandman, even of his daughter's health (or lack thereof)? And why does the Sandman casually toss Venom aside and calmly walk away just after this horrific alien monster screamed in his face, as if it were nothing? And the Sandman later claims to Spider-Man that he "had no choice" but to help Venom to kill him, but in the scene in which he first meets Venom we see him agree to work with the beast without putting up a fight (and surely he is stronger than Venom anyway, as we see him in the form of a massive sand monster as he is helping Venom to slay the Spider. Even if he had been coerced by Venom initially, surely he could have defeated, or at least resisted, him there and then?). Perhaps the Sandman merely meant that he "had no choice" in the sense that he had to kill Spider-Man in order to continue his robberies to fund his daughter's treatment. But was going so far as to try to murder Spider-Man really necessary? Couldn't he have just tried to send him to the hospital for a few weeks, rather than the morgue, while he stole enough cash to return his daughter to health? And in any case, the Sandman seems pretty invincible anyway - nothing Spider-Man had thus far done up to that point in the film had done anything more than temporarily incapacitate him. His "excuse" doesn't make any sense. Anyway, I could go on talking about these nonsensical elements of the film, but I have better things to do.